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Italian expression of the day: ‘Braccine corte’

Sometimes this is just the phrase to reach for.

Italian expression of the day: 'Braccine corte'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If an Italian acquaintance tells you your arms are short, they’re not commenting on your physical appearance. And it’s probably a sign that it’s your turn to pay for the coffee. 

Avere le braccine corte or le braccia corte literally means “to have short arms”, and it’s used to say someone’s a bit tight with their money.

Like the English phrase “short arms and deep pockets”, it’s used to describe those people who are seemingly unable to reach their wallets when it’s time to pay for anything.

– Va bene, braccine corte, le patatine le offro io.

– Okay, tightwad, I’ll pay for the chips

An alternative explanation you might hear is that the saying comes from an old fabric merchants’ custom of selling lengths of cloth a braccia, or “by the arm” – a unit of measurement used to give an estimate of the price. Those sellers who charged higher prices were said to have short ‘arms’.

And, alternatively, if someone’s a real miser, you could use the adjective tirchio (pronounced TIR-kyoh).

– Non pensavo che il mio futuro marito potesse essere così tirchio.

– I didn’t know my future husband would be this tight with money

READ ALSO: Popes, chickens and reheated soup: 15 everyday Italian idioms you need to know

If you want to say the complete opposite, there’s an equally colourful phrase you could use: avere le mani bucate.

If you say someone has “holes in their hands”, it means money tends to slip through them all too easily 

-Ha le mani bucate e non riuscirà mai a risparmiare abbastanza da comprarsi una casa.

-She has holes in her hands and will never manage to save up enough to buy a house

This person is probably a spendaccione (‘spen-da-CHO-neh’) – a “big spender”, or someone who spends their money in a carefree or extravagant way.

– Hai già finito i soldi dello stipendio? Sei proprio uno spendaccione!

– Have you already spent your salary? You’re a real spendthrift!

For the seriously careless, the harsher description of scialacquatore (shall-akwa-TOH-reh’) might apply, which literally sounds like “water spiller” but means something like “waster” or “squanderer”.

– ha scialacquato tutto il suo

– he squandered everything he had

We just hope you don’t hear these words used to describe you.

Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

Member comments

  1. Thanks for all these wonderful words you give us. I am making a nice little file of them so I can learn them.

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For members


Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

The phrase you'll need to describe a true staple of Italian summer.

Italian expression of the day: ‘A quattro palmenti’

If you’re lucky enough to be spending your summer holidays somewhere in Italy, don’t kid yourself: there’s going to be a lot of eating – or overeating – involved.

Today’s expression might at least help you describe it.

Mangiare a quattro palmenti’ is a popular expression used to describe the act of eating in a particularly fast and greedy manner.

Just think of the way all diets and semblances of self-constraint are generally dashed out of the window as soon as a plate of hot panzerotti is placed at the centre of the table.

The phrase could be considered the Italian equivalent of English expressions of the likes of ‘wolfing down’, ‘scoffing’, ‘gobbling’, ‘scarfing down’ and so on.

Oh, Luca, puoi per una volta provare a non mangiare a quattro palmenti?

Scusa, avevo tanta fame.

Oh, Luca, can you please try not to wolf down [all of your food] for a change?

Sorry, I was hungry.

Le sfogliatelle che fa mia nonna sono buone da morire. Le mangio a quattro palmenti ogni volta che le cucina.

My grandma’s sfogliatelle are to die for. I scarf them down every single time she makes them.  

But, while the action may be familiar to almost anyone, the idiom’s literal translation is likely to be tough for Italian learners to crack.

In fact, the word ‘palmenti’, which is the plural of ‘palmento’, isn’t used in any social context other than the one mentioned above and it would be practically impossible to glean its meaning by simply analysing the structure of the noun.

So, what is a ‘palmento’? Though the word might remind you of palm trees (‘palme’ in Italian) or the palms of one’s hands (‘palmi’), it’s got nothing to do with either.

A ‘palmento’ is one of the two fundamental elements allowing for the correct functioning of a water mill, namely the millstone – naturally, the other one is the water wheel. 

A millstone’s main job is that of rotating on a stationary base so as to grind and crush wheat or other grains, thus producing flour. Does that remind you of something?

Living up to their repuation as highly imaginative people, at the start of last century, but possibly even before then, Italian speakers started associating the laborious grinding of millstones to the chewing motions of human jaws and the expression ‘a quattro palmenti’ (‘with four millstones’) became a way to describe people greedily chomping on their food.

It isn’t quite clear why exactly four ‘palmenti’ were used here, though the number must have been seen as exaggerated and hyperbolic. 

Hai veramente intenzione di mangiare tutto quello che c’è a tavola a quattro palmenti?

Si, quello era il piano…

Are you really going to scoff everything that’s on the table?

Yeah, that was my plan…

The expression ‘mangiare a due palmenti’ also exists, though it’s hardly ever used nowadays, so feel free to stick with the ‘four-millstone’ version.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.